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Review: Ruthless 'Wild Indian' Recounts a Compellingly Potent if Overly Sparse Tragedy of Assimilation

By Ciara Wardlow | Film | September 10, 2021 |

By Ciara Wardlow | Film | September 10, 2021 |


“Some time ago, there was an Ojibwe man, who got a little sick and wandered the West.” Wild Indian, the feature debut from Ojibwe writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., opens with these words, and then introduces us to the man of the hour: Makwa, or, as he comes to be known, “Michael” (Michael Greyeyes). Michael is this wandering man, but also isn’t—it’s a story about him but also bigger than that, he is an echo of something much greater, of an ancestor covered in pox pustules—a centuries-old narrative that bookends this film, paralleling Michael’s ills of the soul with decimating physical illnesses brought (and even sometimes intentionally weaponized) by European colonizers. Interestingly, Wild Indian is one of two newly released drama films, alongside Mogul Mowgli, to use physical illness as a metaphor in a way traditionally reserved for body horror.

Also in ways quite similar to Mogul Mowgli, Wild Indian is not a film to stop and explain things. There’s a folkloric sparsity to this film, both narratively and aesthetically, that works until it works too well—the messages ring through clearly but the characters get a little lost, feeling more like vehicles than people. (Though granted, at least some of the aesthetic sparsity could easily be more by budgetary necessity than desire).

At its core, Wild Indian is a classic “diverging paths” tale of two people irrevocably tied together by a pivotal event that fundamentally impacts the course of both their lives in completely different ways; they cross paths again many years later and their shared past threatens to bubble up into the present. The foil to Makwa is his cousin, Ted-O (Chaske Spencer). As boys in the 1980s, Makwa shoots and kills a classmate of whom he is jealous, with Ted-O as his only witness and accomplice after the fact. Although the film does start in the 1980s and depict the actual crime, the flashback ultimately feels like it doesn’t actually contribute all that much to set up both these men and their relationship.

Perhaps part of the issue has something to do with how the murder, while heinous, is only really a turning point for Ted-O and not Makwa—the only thing different about the latter 35 years later is the name he goes by; the anger and assimilated self-loathing that defines him is present from the very first time we meet him as a boy. His crime is the ultimate proof of just how lost he is, but it’s a path he’s already started walking down well before he is introduced. On the other hand, Ted-O seems far more impacted by the weight of the crime, set on a path that leads him into trouble with the law, even though he did not pull the trigger, the guilt such a heavy burden to bear that he never figures out how to carry it without stumbling. When the film revisits him in 2019, he is just being released after finishing up a significant prison stint. All that being said, stating with certainty that it was guilt over Makwa’s crime that pushed him down this path still feels a bit presumptuous to say, because in truth there is surprisingly little of Ted-O in the film.

From the very core of the premise, Wild Indian feels like it’s really meant to be a two-hander, and indeed many of the strongest moments in the film come from juxtapositions set up between the two men, but there are ultimately fewer of these than one would expect. It’s really Michael’s movie, but Michael is an incredibly difficult protagonist to parse, taciturn and bottled up save the occasional violent explosion he is always quick to cover up. He embodies a collection of traits that a Forbes magazine article would construe as virtues, but are here laid bare in their sociopathic extremes, a bit reminiscent of Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. Michael has assimilated all the way to the top, to reach the traditional ideals of white manhood, complete with a high-earning corporate job, a beautiful blonde wife, and a firstborn son. These are all trophies he has won in a game that he hates, although the assimilated self-hatred runs even deeper, and one consistently gets the sense that he doesn’t particularly want or know what to do with any of it. He goes to a strip club to choke a dancer who looks like his wife; his attitude towards his son swings between disinterest and downright resentment.

Ultimately, it is through contrasts with the more emotive Ted-O that viewers are able to get the most interesting insight into Michael—one sequence, for instance, in which Michael’s lack of interest in connecting with his young son Francis despite wife Greta’s (Kate Bosworth) requests is held up against the newly freed Ted-O earnestly attempting to connect with his young nephew is particularly striking. There is not enough of Ted-O in the film to feel one truly gets a clear sense of him, but ironically enough this choice also feels like it goes against painting the most layered portrait of Michael as well.

All that said, Greyeyes gives a remarkable performance as Michael. The character is often not a man of many words, and when he does speak what comes out is generally very pointedly obfuscating. Especially considering the sparsity of the visual style and very standard (and in all truth, sometimes a little generic) visual storytelling at play, it’s really up to Greyeyes to communicate all the things unspoken through his performance, and he delivers, commanding every scene with a captivating intensity.

Despite its shortcomings, Wild Indian is still ultimately a commendably strong debut from Corbine that establishes him as a filmmaker to watch and serves as an excellent showcase for Michael Greyeyes’s considerable talents.

Wild Indian is now playing in select theaters and available on PVOD.